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Iran uses Internet as tool against protesters

In Iran, the rare move of issuing a public appeal for help via the Internet suggests that law enforcement authorities are overwhelmed by the range of protesters.

By Iason AthanasiadisCorrespondent / January 4, 2010

Demonstrators display their placards during a silent protest at the Trocadero in front of the Eiffel Tower in Paris, Saturday, where Iranian associations gathered to pay homage to victims during a demonstration against Iran's clampdown on opposition activists.

Jacques Brinon/AP

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Istanbul, Turkey

Iran is deepening its fight against the opposition Green Movement by publishing photographs of protesters in the hopes that informants will step forward and identify them to authorities

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Two sets of photographs were published on the pro-Ahmadinejad Raja News site, both in the wake of violent Dec. 27 demonstrations on the Shiite Muslim holiday of Ashura. The latest, published Monday, displays 47 images containing about 100 faces circled in red – adding to the 38 photos published last week with 65 faces circled. The announcement offered readers a hotline and a website to give Iranian police tips on the identity of those individuals. In addition, the state-owned broadcaster featured Hojjatolislam Qarayati, a pro-regime cleric, urging all religious Iranians to report demonstrators to the authorities.

“This technique of identifying protesters is basically an appeal to people who know them – i.e. have a grudge – to come forward and hand them in,” says James Spencer, director of research and analysis at Scymitar Consulting, a London-based group. “This hasn’t altered radically since medieval or Wild West wanted posters.”

The rare move of issuing a public appeal for help suggests that Iran's law enforcement authorities are overwhelmed by the range and social spread of protesters spilling onto the streets. While the Revolutionary Guard, known as the IRGC, has been expanding into the Ministry of Intelligence's traditional area of coverage, Iran's professional and ideological army is more accustomed to being used to defend the country from external threats.

Although Iran’s electronic warfare capabilities and ballistic missile and nuclear programs position it as one of the Middle East’s most technologically advanced nations, such skills don’t seem to have filtered down to an intelligence ministry more famed for its strong human intelligence assets.

While Britain and the US possess advanced facial recognition-enabled CCTV networks that allow for the automatic identification and tracking of suspects, Iran is not known to have acquired such an ability.

Shoddy file-keeping and other security practices at the intelligence ministry were corroborated by a Dubai-based activist who was detained during the summer in one of the post-election demonstrations. His worries that a previous detention would lead to harsher punishment dissipated after he realized that, even assuming his prior stint had been registered, poor information-sharing between different intelligence branches still shielded him from discovery. Last month, he successfully tested this theory when he returned to Iran to participate in demonstrations timed for Ashura and entered and exited the country unhindered.

This reporter experienced a similar dearth in information-sharing during his own detention this past summer. Despite living in Tehran for three years between 2004 and 2007, his interrogators displayed minimal knowledge of his background and had to consult a CV culled from his confiscated laptop for biographical information.
The Revolutionary Guard pioneered the technique of actively employing the Internet in repressing dissent immediately after the disputed presidential elections in June when it began posting pictures of wanted men and women on the IRGC-affiliated website www.basirat.ir.

Raja News readers contributed postings with comments such as, “They are all mohareb [fighters against Allah] and must be executed.”

Since the summer, the Revolutionary Guard, traditionally the repository of hi-tech tools, has increasingly muscled into the Intelligence Ministry’s traditional area of coverage. For example it established a parallel intelligence apparatus for the capital city after Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad had a well-publicized spat with former Intelligence Minister Mohsen Ejhei that prompted his resignation

The Intelligence Ministry’s identification tools are more hands-on. While this reporter was being held in Tehran’s Evin prison for three weeks last summer, he was pressured to name antiregime demonstrators and witnessed intelligence officials using marker pens to circle recurring faces in freshly-printed images shot by intelligence ministry-subsidized photographers at demonstrations.

Many Green Movement demonstrators have adapted to the ministry’s techniques, learning to identify where traffic cameras are positioned and taking care to come to protests disguised with bandannas or sunglasses.

“We have to assume they probably have access to pretty good technology,” said a Tehran-based analyst who requested anonymity for fear of persecution. “The main effect of these picture-shows will be that people might get concerned about showing their faces at the protests and might take increased measures to cover up. At the same time, people are increasingly bold.”

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